The original Avengers comic, as named by Ant Man and Wasp Woman.
Spiderman is getting a reboot. Hulk has been rebooted three times, most recently in the blockbuster Avengers. Why are people so into superheroes?
I think the answer may lie in Thor. Thor is a Norse God adapted as a comic book hero. These superheroes are all like modern, dereligionated Gods. And people do need Gods, in the plural.
Every religion, from Buddhism to Christianity, has a philosophical core communicated by stories. The Buddha’s teachings are quite practical and clear, but even he communicated them through metaphors (“As rain does not break through a well-thatched house, passion will not break through a well-reflecting mind.”). As Buddhism became cultural, it accumulated more and more stories – like the Jataka tales of the Buddha’s various rebirths. In the Tibetan/Chinese Mahanaya tradition Buddhism accumulated more and more gods and demons as well. Christianity, Islam and Judaism, of course, are more of a generational epic, covering the descendants of Abraham through Moses, David, Jesus and Mohammed. Each of those prophets, especially the latter two, communicated through parable and tale. I haven’t even touched on Hinduism, which is a more obvious connection. Epics like the Mahabarata and superheroes like Rama are still worshiped to this day. Marshall McCluhan said the medium is the message, but you could also say the medium is the messiah. The medium is stories.
What is a story? A story is something with a beginning, a middle and an end, loosely. A good story has conflict. What I think makes a religious story different is that the good side wins – even if the story is still being told. It’s not a melancholy novel or a tragedy, not in the whole. There is a higher power. That is the faith, that God’s kingdom will come, that rebirths will lead us to enlightenment, that it all makes sense. There is also an idea that things are not as they appear. That humans can be more than human, that we have godhead within us.
In many ways, this is the cultural niche that superheroes fill. We don’t tell religious stories as much anymore, especially not in the west. But we do have superheroes. While traditional religious stories have become preachy and tied to dated prescriptions on where you put your penis, Marvel and DC superheroes simply serve an amorphous, modern ‘good’. They protect the innocent, try not to destroy too much property, and try to be nice and take pictures with children. The superheroes all have their own humanity and internal growth. They’re traditionally opposed to supervillians, meaning (like Gods) that their battles are on another plane, a plane that intersects quite immediately with ours.
And these are stories you can tell your children. They are books (with pictures), they are songs, they are movies and miracles. Like we build skyscrapers instead of churches, we make superhero movies instead of religious plays. In India this distinction is less stark – Hinduism still has multiple Gods, many lived stories, and the Ramayana and Krishna (especially) still feature in popular culture, like TV and film.
In the west and world as a whole, however, superheroes are the new decontextualized gods and their vague do-goodery is what passes for a common religion. Plus it’s fun, which people have forgotten about religion. It used to be stories, it used to be popular, it used to be exciting and it used to be fun.